How will travel to the EU change for Britons after Brexit?

The impact of Brexit on European travel after 31 December 2020 is going to be a complicated one. A recent survey by Discover Ferries, which represents ferry operators in the UK and Ireland, reports that only one in three people felt confident about travel changes after the end of the transition period. Only 6% of respondents were aware of all the changes affecting EU travel in 2021.

Passports, healthcare, pets, driving and duty-free shopping were some of the topics causing confusion. Recent Covid-related travel restrictions have made things even less clear.

A fifth of those surveyed were planning European summer holidays in 2021; others were waiting to see how Brexit and Covid-19 play out. Discover Ferries director Abby Penlington said that because of 2020’s disruptions, operators were expecting passengers to book closer to their departure date than usual. She was optimistic about travel opportunities opening up, but said: “Amid UK lockdowns and the festive period, updating travel documents may not be at the forefront of the public’s mind.”

People need to plan ahead to do things like renew passports and update insurance, pet documents and driving permits. Here is what we know so far about travelling to EU countries in 2021.

Will Britons be able to travel to EU countries at all?

Travellers, wearing protective face masks, at Orly airport, France, on 1 August, 2020. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

With the new coronavirus variant spreading, some countries have suspended travel from the UK, and people in tier 4 areas are banned from travelling abroad except for work purposes. EU Covid-19 guidance recommends that member states restrict non-essential travel from outside the EU – unless visitors come from countries with much-lower rates of infection, such as Australia and New Zealand.

Mark Tanzer, chief executive of Abta, representing the travel industry, pointed out that the European council’s guidance is only a recommendation. “Individual EU countries are still able to implement their own measures, considering options such as travel corridors and testing,” he said. He thought it would still be some weeks before the full position was clear.

An Abta spokesperson added: “Obviously, it’s subject to infection rates, but it’s a matter of common sense. British holidaymakers are very important for a number of EU countries. Several destinations will be desperate for us to come back.” According to Abta, UK travellers took more than 66 million European trips in 2019.

There was a less sanguine view from the travel trade union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA). Its general secretary, Manuel Cortes, said early in December: “Just when we’ve had some good news from the vaccine rollout, this news about post-Brexit European travel restrictions could sound the death knell for the travel trade.

Are our passports still valid?

Photo of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland passport against a map of Europe.
Photograph: Richard Gardner/Rex

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new dark blue one or an old burgundy one, UK passports will need to have at least six months’ remaining validity before the holder can travel to Europe. Passports also need to have been issued less than 10 years ago, which is generally not a problem. There is a government passport checker here.

Travel to the Republic of Ireland will generally stay the same. It is part of a common travel area that existed before we were members of the EU, so UK visitors will still be able to enter Ireland with any valid passport or photo ID, such as a driving licence.

Will we need visas to visit the EU?

Not for stays of less than 90 days. The European freedom of movement we’ve had for decades will end on 1 January 2021. But UK travellers will, for now, still be allowed to visit EU countries visa-free for up to 90 days in any 180 days.

From 2022, under the new European Travel Information and Authorization System (Etias), nationals from previously visa-free third countries, including UK citizens, will need to pay for a visa-waiver to visit Schengen-area countries. We will also need to fill in an Etias application form before setting off.

Will border control be different?

Gates, passport control and toilets signs are seen at Lisbon’s airport, Portugal.
Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

The UK government website says British visitors to EU countries may need to prove they have enough money to support themselves for the whole of their stay. They may also need to get their passport stamped and show a return or onward ticket. They will probably need to wait in a different queue from EU citizens, too. And (with a few exceptions) they won’t be able to take meat, dairy and certain plant products with them.

Can I drive in EU countries?

If you are driving your own car, you’ll need a green card (insurance certificate) to show that you’re insured in the EU. You need to contact your insurance company six weeks before you travel to get one. After 31 December, you’ll need a GB sticker on your car, too, even if the number plate already has a GB marking.

If you only have a paper copy of your driving licence, you may also need an international driving permit – available at most post offices. For updates over coming weeks and months on which countries require one, check here.

Can I still travel with my pets?

A girl pats her dog as she sits on a beacch and sunbathes.
Photograph: Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters

Yes, but current EU pet passports will no longer be valid from 1 January; owners will need an animal health certificate instead. Government advice is to contact a vet at least four months in advance. Daniella Dos Santos, senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “The UK has been confirmed as Part 2-listed, which means pets will need an animal health certificate every time they travel to the EU. Pet owners should visit their vet at least a month before travel regarding rabies vaccination, and then again no more than 10 days before travel to obtain the animal health certificate. Our advice to pet owners is to contact their vet in plenty of time to get the latest advice and allow time for the necessary additional paperwork.”

Will I still be able to access healthcare?

The overall picture is complicated and the UK government recommends taking out travel insurance with healthcare cover. No new European health insurance cards (Ehics) will be issued to UK citizens, but holders can continue to use them in the EU while validity lasts. The new UK-EU agreement suggests there will be a replacement healthcare scheme (involving a global health insurance card), but there are no clear details yet.

Will I have to pay roaming charges again on my mobile phone?

Young woman at Guell Park in Barcelona, Spain speaking on phone
Photograph: Alamy

In 2017, the EU abolished additional charges for roaming (using your mobile phone abroad) for EU citizens travelling in other EU countries. Before that, holidaymakers could sometimes inadvertently incur hefty extra fees. From 1 January, individual mobile providers could introduce roaming surcharges again.

The UK’s four main phone networks – EE, Three, Vodafone and O2 – promised in the summer not to reintroduce charges. An EE spokesperson said: “Our customers going on holiday and travelling in the EU will continue to enjoy inclusive roaming.”

A new UK law means travellers can’t now incur mobile data charges of more than £45 a month without being alerted. For data usage costing more than £45, they’ll need to opt in by agreement with the operator.

What about duty-free?

A customer browses bottles of wine for sale inside a Monoprix supermarket operated by Casino Group, in Paris
Photograph: Benoît Tessier/Reuters

The pre-Brexit rules let you bring as much as you like back from EU countries without paying UK duties. From January 2021, there will be a duty-free allowance both ways. Up to this maximum, travellers can bring home goods bought in an EU country as long as they transport and use them themselves (or give them as a gift). The allowance for travellers from the EU to the UK includes up to four litres of spirits, 18 litres of wine and 42 litres of beer, so you could still stock up for a pretty good party.

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